Category Archives: David Wootton

David Wootton

[L]let us take for a moment a typical well-educated European in 1600 – we will take someone from England, but it would make no significant difference if it were someone from any other European country as, in 1600, they all share the same intellectual culture. He believes in witchcraft and has perhaps read the Daemonologie (1597) by James VI of Scotland, the future James I of England, which paints an alarming and credulous picture of the threat posed by the devil’s agents. He believes witches can summon up storms that sink ships at sea – James had almost lost his life in such a storm. He believes in werewolves, although there happen not to be any in England – he knows they are to be found in Belgium (Jean Bodin, the great sixteenth-century French philosopher, was the accepted authority on such matters). He believes Circe really did turn Odysseus’s crew into pigs. He believes mice are spontaneously generated in piles of straw. He believes in contemporary magicians: he has heard of John Dee, and perhaps of Agrippa of Nettesheim (1486–1535), whose black dog, Monsieur, was thought to have been a demon in disguise. If he lives in London he may know people who have consulted the medical practitioner and astrologer Simon Forman, who uses magic to help them recover stolen goods.9 He has seen a unicorn’s horn, but not a unicorn.

He believes that a murdered body will bleed in the presence of the murderer. He believes that there is an ointment which, if rubbed on a dagger which has caused a wound, will cure the wound. He believes that the shape, colour and texture of a plant can be a clue to how it will work as a medicine because God designed nature to be interpreted by mankind. He believes that it is possible to turn base metal into gold, although he doubts that anyone knows how to do it. He believes that nature abhors a vacuum. He believes the rainbow is a sign from God and that comets portend evil. He believes that dreams predict the future, if we know how to interpret them. He believes, of course, that the earth stands still and the sun and stars turn around the earth once every twenty-four hours – he has heard mention of Copernicus, but he does not imagine that he intended his sun-centred model of the cosmos to be taken literally. He believes in astrology, but as he does not know the exact time of his own birth he thinks that even the most expert astrologer would be able to tell him little that he could not find in books. He believes that Aristotle (fourth century BCE) is the greatest philosopher who has ever lived, and that Pliny (first century CE), Galen and Ptolemy (both second century CE) are the best authorities on natural history, medicine and astronomy. He knows that there are Jesuit missionaries in the country who are said to be performing miracles, but he suspects they are frauds. He owns a couple of dozen books.

David Wootton, The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution, London, 2015, pp. 6-7